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CULTURE

‘Love in midst of horror’: Austria hosts The Wedding of Auschwitz exhibition

The two newlyweds have dressed up for the picture, but they are not smiling. And for good reason: their union was sealed at Auschwitz -- the only wedding known to have taken place in the death camp.

'Love in midst of horror': Austria hosts The Wedding of Auschwitz exhibition
Wedding photo Rudolf Friemel and Margarita Ferrer Rey, 18. March 1944. (Rudolf Friemel Estate, Vienna Library in the City Hall)

The yellowed photo of Rudolf Friemel, an Austrian communist who resisted the Nazis, and his Spanish wife Margarita Ferrer Rey, is now on show in his home town Vienna.

It is the centrepiece of an exhibition, “The Wedding of Auschwitz”, which uses papers donated by their family to tell the couple’s heart-breaking story.

Friemel met Ferrer Rey in Spain after going there to fight with the International Brigades in 1936 against General Franco’s fascists during the Spanish Civil War.

He was sent to Auschwitz in 1942 after returning home.

In the camp he was set to work repairing SS vehicles, and was held in “better conditions than other prisoners”, according to Vienna’s Social Democratic mayor, Michael Ludwig, who wrote the introduction to the catalogue.

But why the Nazis granted the Friemels — their bitter enemies — “such an unique privilege to be able to marry remains a mystery to this day,” Ludwig added.

Escape attempt

“What I find most interesting is that we see that there was love in the midst of horror,” the couple’s grandson, Rodolphe Friemel, told AFP from his home in southern France.

He wondered if “maybe my grandparents did all this just to see each other again,” with Margarita allowed to travel to Auschwitz from Vienna for the wedding with their son — who was born in 1941 — and Friemel’s father.

The marriage was registered at 11 a.m. on March 18th, 1944, as the slaughter at the camp reached its peak.

Some one million Jews were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau as well as homosexuals, prisoners of war and others persecuted by Germany’s Nazi regime.

Photos of the Gestapo Vienna detection service, September 1941. (Rudolf Friemel Estate, Vienna Library in the City Hall)

Friemel, 48, gave the wedding documents, including congratulations messages from other prisoners, to the Vienna City Library early this year to ensure their preservation.

His grandfather was allowed to wear civilian clothes and let his hair grow for the occasion, and a cell was made available to the couple for their wedding night in the camp brothel.

But the respite was shortlived. Rudolf Friemel was hanged in December 1944 for helping to organise an escape attempt. The camp was liberated a month later.

All his wife and child — who moved to France after the war — were left with were his heartbreaking letters and poems.

Margarita died in 1987.

The show runs at Vienna City Library until the end of the month.

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CULTURE

Austria returns looted Indigenous remains to New Zealand

The remains of scores of Indigenous Maori and Moriori people began a journey home to New Zealand on Tuesday, officials said, most of them stolen by a notorious 19th-century Austrian graverobber.

Austria returns looted Indigenous remains to New Zealand

The bones of about 64 Maori and Moriori — the Indigenous people of mainland New Zealand and the Chatham Islands, respectively — are being returned by the Natural History Museum Vienna.

They will be received at Te Papa, the national museum of New Zealand in Wellington, on Sunday as part of a government-funded programme to bring Indigenous remains back to the Pacific nation.

The remains, including skulls, were housed for decades in Austria’s capital after being plundered from New Zealand’s “iwi” (tribes) more than 130 years ago, officials from the two countries said.

READ ALSO: ‘Love in midst of horror’: Austria hosts The Wedding of Auschwitz exhibition

Records show that most of the bones were collected by Austrian taxidermist and graverobber Andreas Reischek, who toured New Zealand for 12 years until 1889.

Reischek’s diaries recount how he looted graves without permission in several locations including the Chatham Islands, Christchurch and Auckland.

“These ancestors were stolen by those with no regard for the Maori communities they belonged to,” said William “Pou” Temara, chairman of Te Papa’s Repatriation Advisory Panel, in a statement Tuesday.

“In his diary entries, Reischek boasts of eluding Maori surveillance, looting sacred places and breaking ‘tapu’ (sacred rules) — he knew exactly what he was doing.

“His actions were wrong and dishonest.”

77 years of negotiations

The remains began their long journey home on Tuesday at a ceremony attended by New Zealand’s ambassador to Austria.

On Sunday a Maori welcoming ceremony, the Powhiri, will mark the repatriation in Wellington — the biggest so far from Austria.

It will conclude 77 years of negotiations between New Zealand and Austria, which began in 1945 when Maori leaders sought the remains’ return.

The remains will be kept at Te Papa’s “wahi tapu” (sacred space) while the museum consults with Maori and Moriori iwi to determine the final resting place.

Te Papa’s Maori co-leader Arapata Hakiwai said the repatriation was the result of lengthy discussions.

“This historic repatriation helps to reconcile the colonial past and opens a new chapter in relationships between Maori, Moriori, and the New Zealand and Austrian governments,” he said.

READ ALSO: Vienna Nazi art show seeks to address Austria’s WWII legacy

Katrin Vohland, the director of Vienna’s natural history museum, said the process was “driven by the wish for reconciliation”.

“I am happy we can contribute to the healing process,” she said. 

Sunday’s ceremony is the latest return of Indigenous remains since New Zealand created a government-funded repatriation programme in 2003.

In July, the Natural History Museum in London returned the ancestral remains of 111 Moriori and two Maori ancestors to Wellington.

Washington’s Smithsonian Institution returned the remains of 54 Maori people, including four mummified heads, as part of another significant repatriation in 2016.

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